From women’s suffrage to social media: what have we learnt in 100 years of women in politics?
‘In 2019 the College celebrates the 40th anniversary of the admission of female students. Given that this 40 years is also bookended by two female UK Prime Ministers, an event sparking debate and discussion on what we can learn from another recent and important anniversary - 100 years of some women having the vote - seemed apposite. So it was with pleasure that I shared some thoughts and insights from my work with the British Council on Women, Power and Politics and The Pankhurst Trust inspiring a new generation of girls through Rise Voice Vote at the QWN event in early 2019.
Anniversaries and the achievement of ‘firsts’ present us with a celebration of progress. They are also an important opportunity to reflect on and understand the efforts that contributed to this progress and to consider what still needs to be achieved. This point was well made by Alison Madden when she noted that the appointment of Dr Claire Craig as the first female provost of Queen’s in 2019, brings the number of female heads of house at Oxford to one-third of the total. I believe that progress for women in politics has been significant and there remains a significant way to go to achieve both parity of representation and a type of politics that delivers for both women and men.
The numbers alone tell this story. The 2017 general election resulted in the most female MPs of any UK parliament with 208 female MPs now making up 32% of the UK parliament. In England 32% of local councillors are women; it is around a quarter in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And there are important lessons to be learnt about progress not being linear; the 2017 general election saw fewer women stand as MPs than in 2015, councillor numbers have been fairly static for over a decade, and in Wales 42% of Assembly Members are women despite Wales achieving the status of first 50:50 parliament in the world in 2003. Internationally, the UK sits at 38 in the rankings for women in national parliaments (International Parliamentary Union), where Rwanda sits in first place, followed by Cuba, Bolivia and Sweden. Having the first European country in seventh place betrays the nuance and complexity of understanding what drives and what challenges progress.
The importance of women’s activism and sisterhood in making progress should not be underestimated; women with experience in politics tell us that acting together is almost always top of the list of what made the difference to them. The #AskHerToStand campaign and support from The Parliament Project are key for many women starting out in politics today. We see this solidarity continuing cross-party once in office through women’s caucuses internationally and at Westminster. Further progress requires all women to work together and support each other to achieve meaningful representation.
In looking at the importance of changing the rules, consider that, while the rules of politics may no longer directly exclude or discriminate, there are changes that need to be made to remove barriers. The impact of Labour’s All Women Shortlists on changing the number of female MPs since 1997 is clear, as is the international evidence base for well designed quotas (or temporary special measures) to achieve parity. From candidate selection, party reporting of data, to the role of the second chamber, financing of politics, and our accountability within international frameworks, there is plenty of scope for further progress in creating rules that level the field.
Many at the QWN event shared the sense of shock when the scale of concerns about sexual harassment at Westminster gained press attention. This was a clear example of where the political workplace was shown to be out of step with wider norms and expectations. While women’s presence is much more the norm and attitudes are changing at Westminster and councils across the country, too often arcane rules and lack of change to how the workplace operates persevere. As I write this the House of Commons has officially passed “baby leave” to allow proxy voting for mothers on maternity leave, but the day before the event Tulip Siddiq had to vote on Brexit legislation in a wheelchair having delayed a planned cesarean section - in 2019! We can take hope from the examples of the Welsh and Scottish parliaments where greater attention to women and gender have been considered from the start of new legislatures.
When thinking about leadership we cannot fail to acknowledge that the UK has had two female Prime Ministers. For many Conservative women in particular, being able to see Margaret Thatcher in ‘the top job’ was key to them pursuing a role in politics. Yet the data shows that progress in leadership is mixed, with women accounting for only one in five council leaders, four in 16 directly elected mayors, and none of the “Metro Mayors” elected in our newest political structures. Although in autumn 2018 women were leading or co-leading half of the UK's main political parties, holding the positions of Prime Minister (one of only 16 female leaders worldwide) and First Minister in Northern Ireland and Scotland, they accounted for only six Cabinet positions (26%). Reflect on the story of Queen’s own Old Member and Honorary Fellow Ruth Kelly, who served as the youngest ever female Cabinet Minister in 2004, while having four children as a serving MP. Kelly was often subject to media representations of her as either “superwoman” or that referred to her “masculine hair” and other elements of her appearance. This speaks to the wider issue of needing to normalise women’s leadership and the media’s role in perpetuating ideas of “acceptable difference” for women aspiring to leadership. Male champions of change are also needed if we are to achieve greater progress.
These changes in politics have occured in a broader changing world that has seen sweeping changes to the position of women and gender equality in the last 100 years; education and economic independence have been critical in achieving a broader change. Technology is one key area. Women are now able to connect via social media in powerful movements such as #metoo but female MPs from all parties are also subjected to a daily onslaught of gendered abuse and threats on the same platforms. Women we have spoken to are passionate about ensuring that in this changing world we educate and inspire our young people about politics and the impact it can have on creating a better future for us all. Our work with young people in Manchester on Rise Voice Vote has shown us that young people are engaged and care deeply about improving people’s lives: they need us to create the spaces for this to happen.
A lot can be learnt from considering women’s role in politics and much, if not all, of these experiences resonate with business and other sectors of public life. At the event there was a lot of honest conversation about the continuing barriers to women who are considering engaging more in politics or standing for election. Despite this, we took hope from the experiences that were shared and recognised that if we do what we can to support others and learn to ask for help from one another, we will continue to make progress.’
Nicola Waterworth is co-founder, with Eve Holt (Law, 1997), of Happen Together CIC and co-author of “Women, Power, Politics: what’s changed in 100 years?” for The British Council.